Why BTECs are critical for national talent and widening participation

April 29, 2022, by Professor Stephanie Marshall, Vice-Principal (Education) at Queen Mary University of London

In this blog, Professor Stephanie Marshall, Vice-Principal (Education) at Queen Mary University of London and member of AccessHE’s Steering Group, outlines the vital role that BTEC qualifications play in the widening participation and levelling up agendas. 

Professor Stephanie MarshallLast year, the Government first set out its review of post-16 qualifications at Level 3 and below in England, which contained its proposals to make A-Levels and T-Levels the main options for post-GCSE study. On 8th April this year, the Government announced that funding will be removed for a “small proportion” of applied general qualifications, including BTECs. The stated reason is to prevent overlap across post-GCSE courses. While we can be somewhat reassured that the proposed level of defunding for BTECs and similar vocational qualifications is now less than we originally feared, there is still an important case to be made about the ongoing importance of these qualifications for both learners and the wider education and skills system.

While the higher and further education sectors will reserve firm judgment until the arrival of further detail, it is much-welcomed news that the Government’s position on the future of BTECs and similar qualifications appears to have softened considerably.

The introduction of T-levels means recognising that in time there will be a wider range of options, and no ‘right’ path for entering university. But we must not be quick to forget what qualifications like BTECs can do alongside them to help students from all backgrounds progress to higher education and meaningful careers. Students entering with these qualifications, just like any others, need to be supported in their transition into university with the right platform and knowledge to succeed. This will allow them to get on as well as get in, as the Government desires.

It would be wrong to assume that the existence of T-levels means BTECs no longer serve any purpose or that they do not provide attractive propositions for learners. Beyond being a potential stepping stone to university, their focus on employment means students are also well-prepared to enter the world of work after school or college. These different routes for educational and skills development are important. Queen Mary has long been committed to inclusivity, aiming via our 2030 Strategy to become the most inclusive university of our kind, and to providing more opportunities for high-quality and flexible education and training. In September 2022 we will be launching, with Newham College, the London City Institute of Technology, which will offer T-levels, degree apprenticeships, and other technical qualifications.

At Queen Mary, over 400 students, roughly 10% of our home undergraduate students, enter with a BTEC as their main Level 3 qualification. No matter which university a student joins, they need to be adequately prepared for the rigours of higher education. This is especially true since the start of the pandemic, given that students have had two years of interrupted schooling, limited teaching time, and significantly reduced social interaction.

Recognising what support programmes can do, we run the Step Ahead Transition Programme for students in our School of Business and Management, where most of our students (61 per cent according to our latest data) arrive with a BTEC. The programme was designed by current students who held BTECs, with the intention of supporting new entrants as they transition into higher education. Of course, there is also much we can learn about approaches for supporting all our students to develop strong transferable skills in team working, presentations and project work – from the prior experiences of our students who have previously taken BTECs.

The best way universities can tailor support to students and give them the right tools to succeed is working closely with them and understanding the specific issues that they face. In our case, through the Step Ahead programme we found that almost half of the students (45 per cent) struggled with preparation for exams because they were not as familiar with sitting them in college as A-Level students. A similar number (43 per cent) found university-style essay writing challenging.

Armed with this knowledge, the one-week transition programme was designed to ensure we covered all the challenges that BTEC students expressed. It included sessions on exam preparation, essay writing, as well as other teaching sessions directly targeted at other issues identified, such as time management. Feedback from the students involved was overwhelmingly positive, and our data showed we were able to reach students from specific backgrounds that historically tend to struggle in their first year of study.

We have full confidence that these students will go on to perform well both at university and in their careers, but I am all too aware of the fact that these are exactly the learners that are at risk of facing a narrower set of options if a significant number of BTECs are lost. The name of a qualification is a lesser indicator of success and suitability than a student arriving with the academic skills and advance knowledge required, along with access to the right preparation.

Disregarding BTECs means disregarding the host of benefits they bring to wider society. Firstly, alongside degree apprenticeships and other technical qualifications, they have a key role to play in plugging skills gaps around the country. The government and employers have identified several industries in desperate need of skilled workers, for example digital. There are thousands of students who enter either university or the workforce every year with technical expertise in areas like Artificial Intelligence or computing gained through BTECs. These students are the professionals of tomorrow who the country will depend on. There is the risk that many young people who would train in areas where there are skills shortages fall into the gaps which may be created if qualifications like BTECs were removed without a suitable, immediately and widely accessible replacement. Therefore the apparent recognition that BTECs and T-levels can work side-by-side, complementing each other is good news for all.

And we cannot forget BTECs’ role in levelling up –another government priority. The profile of our BTEC students at Queen Mary is that they are twice as likely to come from an area of high deprivation, and there is certainly a similar picture at universities up and down the country. We must widen, not cull, technical qualifications to prevent an almost certain drop in the number of students entering university from disadvantaged backgrounds. If we are serious about widening participation and increasing diversity within our institutions, and Queen Mary as well as the wider higher education sector certainly is, then we cannot afford to close one of the many viable routes to a good quality, university education in BTECs.

Beyond the fact that any immediate move away from BTECs would have disproportionately impacted those students from less affluent socioeconomic backgrounds the most, such a move would have ignored that there are many university courses which talented students join via the BTEC route and perform exceptionally. There just needs to be the due consideration that it is the right student, for the right programme, with the right support. I have seen first-hand the springboard BTECs can provide in making higher education more accessible and for students to climb the ladder of success, no more so than here at Queen Mary. We must not forget what they can do both for students and society, and I hope there is a growing realisation that there is more than enough space in the further and higher education landscape for vocational qualifications like BTECs and T-levels to co-exist.